Apr 21, 2009

Saving Handwritten Notes one scrawl at a time

I recently received a DigiMemo L2 8-1/2-by-11-Inch Digital Notepad
as a gift. It does for the notepad what Mimio did for whiteboards. It allows me to use a special clipboard, special pen, and normal pad of paper to take notes and eventually save them on my computer. I've only been using it for a couple of days but so far the hardware has worked flawlessly. The pad itself takes 4 AAA batteries (included) and the pen takes a very small watch battery (advertised to last two years). The pen uses special refill cartridges but a compartment in the back of the pad contains 2 replacements and a stylus.
When I write I simply turn on the pad and start writing. When I'm ready to change to a new piece of paper, I hit the next page button on the pad and keep writing. The pad captures the relative position of everything I write so, if I don't change electronic pages as well as the real page the two pages would be superimposed. There is a little LCD display that provides enough information to make the device easy to use. There is even a "first blank page" button that will move to the first clean page in memory. In addition to the 32MB of built in memory there is also SD card slot (2GB Maximum). That's a lot of writing even for the overly verbose like me.
When the tablet is plugged into the PC two things happen. First, the device mounts both the internal memory and the SD card as devices on the PC (doesn't work with my Mac). Both devices just show up as hard drives (surprisingly the SD card shows up as a drive even when there is no card in the slot).
The second thing that happens is that the pad becomes a pen input device for the PC. Remove the pad of paper, put the cap on the pen and and you have a tablet input device. You don't even have to actually touch the pad surface, just getting it close works. I actually find this second feature not so welcome, although I may change my mind if the latent artist in me ever emerges. I would prefer to be able to keep using the pad to take notes even when it is connected to my computer. If you are an artist I imagine it would feel better to replace an ink cartridge with the stylus but the pen cap works well enough for me and changing the cartridges strikes me as cumbersome and poorly designed.
Now instead of coming back from meetings and transcribing my notes before I lose all those pieces of paper I can scribble to my hearts delight and create digital images and organize them on my PC. Ooh my doodling preserved for future generations. Of course my handwriting is pretty indistinguishable from doodling so it would be nice if there were OCR software that worked with this device.

BUT WAIT if you act today, not only will you get the knives.... A free 30 day trial of DigiMemo's Handwriting Recognition software does come with the pad. It only costs about $40 to buy the software but the software isn't as flawless as the hardware. Of course considering I can't read my own writing it's not too surprising that the translation was sometimes reminiscent of a MadLib strip. It can recognize printing, cursive, free hand drawing and symbols. You can click on the images at the left and see just how atrocious my penmanship is. You can click on any of these sample images to see a larger version to see how well the translation worked (I sure hope Mrs. Cochran from 3rd grade isn't reading this).

Printing seems to work a little bit better and I think with a little effort I might be able to remember how to print again. I was a little disappointed with how it translated the combination of printing and drawing. Sometimes I want to include diagrams in technical documents and it can be laborious to create in a computer what I can draw very quickly. What bothered me about the drawing was that it completely modified the physical positioning of elements making what I was trying to convey more obtuse. I tried the same text and drawing twice trying to be more careful the second time. Of course I didn't do much better and in some ways my use of white space was actually worse. So with a little bit of practice this might work after all.

Finally, you can mark areas on your input for special treatment. So if you write a paragraph of cursive, then print, then do a drawing you can help the software by marking off each section and telling it what it contains. Or as I show here you can tell it to do the printed material and just leave the drawing alone.

About Me

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Tod Gentille (@todgentille) is now a Curriculum Director for Pluralsight. He's been programming professionally since well before you were born and was a software consultant for most of his career. He's also a father, husband, drummer, and windsurfer. He wants to be a guitar player but he just hasn't got the chops for it.